Macromedia Studio 8 full review

Macromedia’s updated suite of Web development products makes sure that Web designers and developers have all the latest and essential technical tools at their disposal. In a vast arena of new and constantly evolving technology, Studio 8 offers the highest level of creativity and productivity to users new to the products, as well as long-time, heavy-weight developers. The programs keep the tools as simple to use as possible but at the same time allow coders to dig deep to continually stretch the possibilities of content and interactivity on the Web.

Macromedia spent a significant amount of time researching exactly what its customers required, from new features to user interface and work-flow improvements. The results
of this endeavour are clearly seen in the new Studio.

Dreamweaver 8: control centre
The Macromedia software developers have engineered an impressive upgrade to the flagship Web site-building product Dreamweaver. It improves with every upgrade in terms of offering better usability and technical ability. Web developers are able to bring together elements created by Fireworks, Flash and FlashPaper, and the program acts like the central hub for users of Contribute.

Tabbed windows have now been introduced to the Mac version, an advantage in the user interface that Windows users already enjoyed. This inclusion arrived late to the Mac version but it’s a huge boost for productivity for Mac-based Web designers. Working in a similar way to Safari’s tabbed browser windows, you can switch easily and quickly from one page to another as you work.

More subtle refinements of the user interface will improve workflow efficiency. Quite a few of the enhancements made are in line with keeping Dreamweaver on top of changing new Web technologies. This means that developers can start straight away designing site elements that utilize the very latest code standards.

Support for the latest version of ColdFusion MX 7 is there, with new server behaviours, code hinting and support for PHP 5. Also, you now have email notification and event logging in the Web Publishing system that will inform you of any site file changes. In addition, the O’Reilly reference content has all the new information you may need to keep you up to date on new technology.

A new coding toolbar lets you find your commonly used scripts offers the ability to include common workflows tasks such as showing hidden characters and wrapping tags.
It’s easier to work with support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) use in Dreamweaver 8; all the CSS related toolbars, options and palettes are wrapped up into
one, accessible panel. New CSS layout help for designers is available, with the ability to check page layout as they design it.

Multiple style sheet support has also been made easier to work with by the introduction of a new summary view in the CSS panel. You can quickly find the style
that’s been applied to the snippets of code. It also offers previews on how the styles will render on different media types, for example, a mobile phone or when a page is printed rather than viewed on a screen.

Dreamweaver 8 has better support for Web standards across all the multiple coding languages it supports and helps developers to work easily with XML and XSTL coding too. Embedding third-party feeds into Web sites is becoming an important and much requested feature, especially for syndicating content from sites such as speciality news sites. Point a page at a feed URL or a XML file and Dreamweaver will let you drag and drop the fields you need onto the page. You can then visually reformat XML content using XSLT (XSLT is a the language used to transform XML documents that use style sheets [XSL] into other XML documents).

You can use this method to make sure your feed’s layout style matches the design of your own site even if the content is pulled live from another Web site and had been originally styled in a different way. Plus Macromedia has improved the code hinting support to provide even more assistance alongside the O’Reilly reference content.
Instead of the boring time waiting for multiple files and images to upload to your Web site server, you can now carry on working while Dreamweaver’s Background FTP works at the same time. Syncing up your live site files with your local files has also been improved making sure you are working on the very latest copy of your site.

Another grand aspect of Dreamweaver 8 is that it works so well with the rest of the Studio software. With the use of the Flash Video Encoder, you can easily add video footage with playback controls and elements to your site pages. (Flash Video Encoder only ships with Flash Professional 8, not the Flash basic version.) You can preview Flash movies in Dreamweaver while you create them. Flash 8 Professional comes with many new features including higher-quality video and improved text tools, but Macromedia also focused much of its time on improving the experience for
Mac users.

Even if you don’t use any other product in Macromedia’s Studio suite, this update to Dreamweaver alone is a massive boon for Web designers.

Flash: more than eye-catching
Flash has grown up into the ultimate Web interactivity and animation package that brings zing to Web sites all over the world. For Flash professionals the improvements in version 8 will be welcomed with eager anticipation. From full scale animated and interactive Web sites to slide presentations, online games and mobile phone content, Flash is one of the most flexible and powerful tools for online content creativity. Document tabs are now included in Flash 8.

Flash Pro enables developers to offer content that can be deployed on a wide variety of devices, such as PDAs and mobile phones as well as computer screens, without losing consistency of quality.

There’s also a new SWF met data property that will improve searchability of SWF files online by search engines, adding a title and description.

There’s a huge range of design effects to apply to your graphics and animations too. And Macromedia has improved the control you have over drawing tools and vector shapes, making them work as well as drawing in Illustrator or FreeHand. The built-in Filter effects work in run-time rendered in real time in Flash Player. Filters such as drop shadow, blur, glow, bevel and colour-adjust can be applied to Movie clips and text fields although these are only available in Flash Professional. A designer also has more power when using strokes; you can apply gradients as well as fills and render stroke intersections better using stroke hinting. For animated objects a graph provides independent control over rotation, velocity, scale colour and filters.
Control of the behaviour and presentation of text in Flash 8 has been improved with the new FlashType engine. It also has presets for font rendering to help static, and to ensure animated text continues to be sharp.

Improvements to the background coding in Flash using ActionScript 2.0 is now easy to use for anyone familiar with JavaScript and you can add dynamic content and motion control. The script editor has also been improved with a better visual interface to make coding easier: it has auto syntax complete and script assist mode to help developers add interactivity to their Flash projects.

Flash Player 8 has also been dramatically improved. As it’s the widest distributed player, Macromedia has made it auto-updateable so you no longer have to download it individually, keeping the user base fully up to date with the latest version of Flash Player. Plus it uses a more advanced code, On2 VP6, which is capable of a much better quality of video at smaller file sizes. Macromedia has also moved to Mach-O for both Dreamweaver and Flash, bringing it closer to native Mac OS X APIs.

Flash Player 8 uses Apple supported Open-GL to render graphics, a move that Macromedia
says brings performance very close to its Windows counterpart.

Flash Pro 8 includes Flash Video Encoder (FLV files). One of the major elements of Flash that Macromedia has concentrated on in this upgrade is the additional support for adding video to Flash projects. Being able to render video directly to Flash Video format is a very useful feature, as professional video editors increasingly have to showcase their portfolio of work online, or review and have their footage approved remotely.

You can add video with the new video import dialog, using skinnable components that are pre-prepared with the parameters for deployment in various ways. The Flash Video Encoder lets you export to Flash directly from Final Cut Pro and other top video software.

Flash also lets you batch process large amounts of video footage with the new encoder. It now has alpha channel support at run time, too. This lets you overlay video that has a transparent or semi-transparent alpha channel over other Flash content, add effects such as smoke, splashing water and fire, and use presenters shot against a blue screen.

But Flash is also one of those complex applications that can make people groan
just thinking about using it. Unless you’re already a professional animator or video editor, the sheer range of creative possibilities Flash can provide tools for can be quite daunting.

Perhaps with this in mind, another version of Flash is available as well: Flash Basic 8. It’s a chopped down version, with all the support for Web animation and graphics that occasional Flash users need, but missing the video capabilities, increased flexibility and authoring power of the Professional version.

Some of the more subtle improvements in this version concentrate on making the workflow and ease of use much better. You can now choose global undo or object-level undo, have a tidier working space with the tabbed panels, and gather up multiple library panels into one. The pasteboard has also been expanded to make viewing of large graphics more accessible.

Flashy file conversion
FlashPaper is one of the most recent solutions created by Macromedia that’s included in the Studio. You wouldn’t be blamed for wondering exactly why it’s needed when most of the world is already Adobe PDF savvy. But FlashPaper is an altogether different technology. Flash Player is installed on 98 per cent of desktops, according to Macromedia. FlashPaper is a standalone application that’s installed on a user’s desktop when you install Contribute 3.1. It uses the Flash engine to compress files generated by third party applications into a suitable size and universal format for Web or email use.

FlashPaper’s raison d’être is to allow anyone to easily convert any document or file into a Web-ready format, such as SWF or PDF, direct from the application. These include Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word documents which historically have been a real pain to distribute and share between both Web pros and non-technical users. Using FlashPaper you can drag and drop a file to quickly produce a Web-ready version that’s compact and fast-opening.

SWFs can be used in developing Flash-based products and are viewable in cross-platform browsers. PDFs can also be created with customized security levels, password protection and permissions. Simply select the print option and choose FlashPaper from the drop-down menu. You do need to have Flash Player 7 installed for Mac OS X to view the resulting files. FlashPaper makes Flash documents created with it searchable, plus helps combat formatting problems when you select and copy text from Flash files.

Turn on the works
Fireworks 8 has also been packed with new creative tools and user interface improvements. Macromedia has also re-thought its batch processing system in Fireworks 8 with the introduction of a log file and status bar – always a handy option when working with many files at once. Fireworks now recognizes ActionScript colour values when they are transferred from Flash, to ensure colour consistency.

You can create interactive pop-up menus using CSS in Fireworks 8, producing customizable code that can then be integrated into Dreamweaver site files. This makes designing some of the interactive features much less daunting for those designers with no coding experience. You can choose fonts, colours and the shape of the menu using the Appearance panel. Creating good usable navigation menus for Web sites is one of the most important parts of good site design so making this step-by-step guidance from within one application is invaluable.

Shadows can be added to paths and text objects easily, and a solid-shadow live filter
and better vector compatibility with Flash prevents drop shadows from being lost between the two applications. Fills, strokes, filters and blend modes are also preserved when switching between the two. New panels for extra control over character insertion and image edits, will help to customize your workspace to suit your projects.

There are now more samples of content for users new to Fireworks to get started with. New sample buttons, animation, themes and mobile development options will help kick-start any projects. New blend modes are also available in this upgrade to help designers easily achieve better creative effects: colour and inverse dodge; soft burn; soft light and soft dodge; reflect; subtract; soft, fuzzy and hard light; freeze, exclusion and overlay. (You can wonder whether more effects available in Photoshop will also be added in the future.) You now have more detailed control over AutoShapes options via the new AutoShape properties panel.

Fireworks 8 is a great tool to help push a designer’s creative imagination and technical ability via usability enhancements, such as the interactive navigation pop-up menu. Fireworks’ simplicity of Web optimization and usability has also got extra support for streamlining workflow between multiple products. It can now import QuickTime image, MacPaint, SGI and JPEG 200 formats. It also remembers the recently used settings for fonts and Web graphic optimization formats, making production times for multiple projects much more efficient.

Fireworks 8 is an excellent package on its own and used in combination with Dreamweaver and Flash is a superb tool for making professional-looking Web site content quickly and efficiently.

Contribute: simple synchronization
Contribute is included in the complete Studio as the front-end tool for non-technical users. Fully compatible with Dreamweaver, Contribute uses a browser-style interface to let you view your Web site live and in edit mode. Security settings can be centrally set up and controlled by the Web site administrator. It allows anyone who needs to add or update information, in text or images, on a Web site to do so without mistakenly breaking vital background code or styles. Used alongside Contribute Publishing Services, a J2EE-based add-on module allows large organizations to access and add server-side management, including activity logging and email notification.

Contribute offers a lot of basic formatting capabilities, in the same way that most word-processing software does, including font selection and layout options such as tables. It also lets a user insert images, Flash elements and video files, while working in sync with Fireworks to edit and optimize Web graphics. For .Mac customers it will detect and automatically create a connection to your .Mac HomePage for editing, based on the system settings on your Mac.

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